If you’re finishing off your gift shopping this week, keeping up a purposeful stride to get out of Omicron’s way before it has a chance to send you into isolation for Christmas, you might at least have been cheered up by the sight of the Christmas windows of shops small and large.
Those festive displays are part of a tradition that now has almost 150 years of history, ever since Rowland Hussey Macy snr, the founder of Macy’s, the American department store, is believed to have unveiled the very first Christmas-themed display window at his New York store, in 1874, featuring a collection of porcelain dolls depicting scenes from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In 1883, Macy’s upped its game by introducing a circular track to its festive display that depicted Santa being pulled by a reindeer. And so a tradition was born.
Before long, facilitated by the recent widespread availability of plate glass, other shop owners followed suit – and when the Chicago-based retail magnate Harry Gordon Selfridge travelled to the UK to open his flagship Selfridges store, on Oxford Street in London, he brought the Christmas-window tradition with him. (Selfridge is also credited with coining the phrases "only __ shopping days until Christmas" and "the customer is always right".)
In Ireland it was the flagship Switzers store, on Grafton Street in Dublin, that became synonymous with the Christmas window. Pre-Christmas trips into the city to catch a glimpse of the magical display was a highlight of many a child's festive season (that, and a visit to the Switzers Santa). Brown Thomas – now part of Selfridges Group, as it happens – has, since it bought Switzers, in 1995, maintained the tradition that had become so ingrained in our Christmas memories.
Many retailers will begin to plan their 2022 festive window displays almost as soon as the new year begins. Harrods, the upmarket London department store, reputedly has a full time staff of 20 working for 10 months a year on its Christmas window displays.
Some notable windows worth seeking out, should you be in the vicinity, include Macy’s (among many others) in New York, which still pulls out all the stops. This year its window weaves the tale of Tiptoe, a bashful blue reindeer who learns to fly.
In London, Harrods and Harvey Nichols both have shoppers agog with their 2021 displays. Harvey Nichols wanted to “spread joy and happiness with bright colours and beaming lights” – and it certainly seems to have delivered. It windows feature contemporary stained-glass panels, light spilling on to the street and creating a festive glow. Harrods’ display uses QR codes to allow passers-by to watch the display spring to life using artificial reality and festive filters and animations.
Another stunning London display worth tracking down is the members club Annabel’s, which has transformed its exterior into a gingerbread house using millions of caramel-coloured Swarovski crystals, and icing made of hand-sculpted crystal-dusted fibreglass.
And don't forget McElhinneys, in Ballybofey in Co Donegal, which scooped the Drapers magazine award for best window display two Christmases ago with their stunning Jingle Jungle theme, which highlighted the importance of preserving the natural habitats of animals worldwide. This year its window display is titled For the Dreamers, and it tells the story of a cosmic Christmas where a young dreamer takes us on his fantasy flight through the clouds, passing Santa and his reindeer while en route to the moon.
Brown Thomas, whose Grafton Street store was named one of the world’s 10 best Christmas displays in 2018 and 2019 by Condé Nast Traveler, unveiled this year’s festive windows in late October. Taking Those Who Shine as their theme, they have been transformed into glittering celebrations of the festive season, including a subtle nod to disco – sadly, the only disco we are likely to experience this Christmas.